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Minnesota's 12th man proved no match for the Dirty Birds

In the waning moments of regulation play in Sunday's NFC championship contest, Metrodome fans--the vaunted "12th man" in the NFL's noy-ZEE-est stadium--booed the home team. It was a first. In this astonishing season, fans have had scant cause for complaint. They've booed the refs occasionally. They've booed the opposition. But never the Vikes. The devastating 30-27 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons, though, proved to be a disconcerting day for the noisemakers in the stands. And so, as Viking fans reacquainted themselves with the gloomiest aspect of the franchise's storied legacy (Can't Win the Big One), they booed. Perhaps the outburst stemmed from the frustrating realization that frenzy from the 12th man doesn't much rattle a talented, well-coached rival.

In all the "Mission is Miami" delirium of the past few weeks, fan noise was played up as one of the Vikings' key advantages--a convenient sidebar for beat writers casting about for an angle. The unbeatable Vikings, with their high-flying offense and allegedly vastly improved defense, entered the game as hefty 11-point favorites. Sportswriters, columnists, even the Viking organization itself fostered the belief that a raucous performance by the fans would figure profoundly into that equation.

In the Vikes' playoff win over the Cardinals, the deafening cheers clearly flummoxed second-year quarterback Jake Plummer. The Cards, though, are a young, erratic team--typical, in many regards, of the succession of teams that put the luster on the Vikes' 15-1 regular-season mark. But against a better-coached Atlanta squad--a team accustomed to playing indoors, on an artificial surface--the Domefield advantage proved to be nil. As 11-year-veteran quarterback Chris Chandler coolly executed the silent count on his way to a sparkling 317-yards-passing performance, the Falcons were never once called for a motion penalty. The Vikes defense, meanwhile, jumped offsides four times, helping to breathe life into two of Atlanta's scoring drives.

Now for the autopsy--never a pleasant matter, but even less so when in life the subject was so vital and full of promise.

The abrupt collapse of the Vikings' Super Bowl juggernaut warrants scrutiny because it so acutely defied the conventional wisdom, far beyond the crowd-noise myth. Who, for instance, could have imagined that Minnesota would lose despite holding Falcons running back Jamal Anderson to 67 yards on 22 carries, an anemic 2.5 yards per carry? Leading up to the game, a big day from Anderson was widely perceived as the Falcons' sole hope. It turned out the Vikings were far more vulnerable to the pass than anyone realized, especially in the second half, when their own offense floundered. Despite three sacks, the pass rush never much bothered Chandler. (It's worth mentioning that Chandler was only the third top-tier quarterback the Vikings faced all year. The other two: Brett Favre and Troy Aikman.)

More significant, who could have predicted that the highest-scoring offense in NFL history would manage just one touchdown in its final 10 possessions? Or that in the second half Randy Moss, who in a single season has established himself as one of the game's greats, would catch just one pass for 4 yards?

Or, more unbelievably yet, that the Vikes could possibly lose after jumping out to a 20-7 lead? The quick start has been a prominent staple of the team's glory this year. In fact, the Vikings seldom had much cause for late-game heroics this season. Before Sunday, Minnesota played only three games that were close in the fourth quarter; all three involved teams that finished .500 or worse (the Rams, the Bears, and Tampa Bay). Perhaps that lack of closing experience contributed to the flat performance in the second half and in overtime. The Falcons, conversely, were involved in dogfights all year, including six games decided by seven points or fewer.

Despite all the gaudy numbers generated by the Minnesota offense this season, Sunday's loss raises serious questions about the prospects for next year. For one thing the Vikings, whose success in '98 stemmed largely from the return of 20 of 22 starters and most of the coaching staff, are likely to be picked over in free agency. The defense, considerably improved over 1997's 29th-place ranking, cannot afford to lose anyone, yet five key starters--Ed McDaniel, Corey Fuller, Derrick Alexander, Robert Griffith, and Orlando Thomas--are unsigned. And then there's offensive coordinator Brian Billick, who within 48 hours of the playoff debacle had inked a head-coaching deal in Baltimore. To top it off, by virtue of their performance this year, the Vikings' schedule next season will be far more difficult.

This was Minnesota's year to erase that nasty bugaboo that has lingered since the glory days of the 1970s, when the Vikings were cast by the football gods as Salieri opposite the Mozarts of AFC dynasties in Pittsburgh, Miami, and Oakland, perpetual also-rans in the resounding baritone of John Facenda's classic NFL Film narrations. This loss recalls nothing so much as the 1975 championship at the Met, when the 12-2 Vikings lost to the Cowboys on the infamous Drew Pearson push-off. (This time, of course, no one threw a bottle at the ref.)

Partisan perspective aside, Vikes vs. Falcons will surely be remembered as one of the classics of conference championship play. It had plenty to recommend it. Good tackling from both sides, great run defense, some artful pass-and-catch. It just didn't turn out the way it was supposed to --unless, of course, you're homesick for the bleak, fatalistic streak that once informed the peculiar sensibilities of the Minnesota football fan.

 
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